What are the costumes from a television series about the British royal family doing at Winterthur? It’s a question that even the creators of Costuming THE CROWN—now on view at this stately Delaware mansion—seem to have asked.
At the opening of the visually luscious exhibition, executive director Carol Cadou said that textiles, including these costumes, afford the viewing public a window into decorative arts. The exhibition’s curatorial trio—Kim Collison, Jeff Groff and Linda Eaton—were on hand, and Collison said that this is about craft and craftsmanship, also noting that “audiences like costume.”
She’s right. So why is this on view here? Of course, an obvious answer is that Winterthur hopes to repeat the success of its recent Downton Abbey exhibition. But that television series had direct social history connections with the estate: The fictional tale mirrored the true-life story of Winterthur, an American iteration of the British manor house.
Over the past few seasons, making grandeur more approachable has been an evolving focus of the institution, and Winterthur does it well. As founder Henry duPont mandated, this preeminent center for American decorative arts has always believed that design is a window into the cultural and historical psyche, and its curators have mounted many illuminating exhibitions that seriously explored material culture.
Costuming THE CROWN is dazzling in its own way, and it highlights a field often overlooked in the design world. On view here is the work of brilliant British costume designers Michele Clapton and Jane Petrie. The women are “brilliant” not in the facile British usage that connotes approval or cool, but in its primary usage—“bright, radiant, exceptionally clever or talented.”
Clothing and character
If you haven’t seen it, The Crown is a British Netflix series with impeccable production values and superb, remarkably nuanced acting. Its two seasons delve deeply into a dramatization of Queen Elizabeth’s postwar reign, and it stars a raft of British actors, with Claire Foy as the Queen. (Harry Haden-Patton, who plays her secretary, is now at New York’s Lincoln Center appearing as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.) But you don’t have to follow the show to appreciate the period exploration that this exhibition affords.
The March 30 opening weekend featured a visit from the show’s collegial designers, who said seeing their creations displayed was “like visiting old friends.” Petrie, who began work in the theater and has done dozens of projects over the past 15 years, designed the show’s second season. She followed Clapton, whose 20 years of film and television work includes seven seasons of HBO’s epic Game of Thrones. Both women have won multiple awards, and it’s clear why. Their costumes (clothing, really) are exceptional. Based on real people in world-changing situations, they are designed impeccably to investigate depth of character.
Canny social researchers
Winterthur is noted for striking installations. Here, rooms are open and airy, so the costumes can be seen from different angles. Gauzy scrims and oval pedestals sweep viewers through an excellently illuminated setting. There are royal family photos and wall panels with cultural and filmic context. There is also delicious millinery, vintage footwear, and even the “fat suit” that transformed tall slender American actor John Lithgow into Winston Churchill.
Clothing shows character—as this exhibition posits and proves—and these looks show how the post-war world changed the royals as Britain itself was changing. The exhibition is divided into four sections of public and private looks worn by the royal family in the 1950s and 1960s. The costumes, carefully prepared and mounted with elegance by textile conservation department head Laura Mina and her team, greet visitors with re-creations of opulent coronation robes supported by specially engineered structures.
As well as being artists, designers Clapton and Petrie are also canny social researchers who veer into the territory of historians, and their exceptional costumes, filled with period details, are the result of serious study. In Costuming THE CROWN, Winterthur has actually mounted an incisive look at a changing time, seen in (the not so frivolous after all) attire of Britain’s royal dramatis personae.
What, When, Where
Costuming THE CROWN. Through January 5, 2020 at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Delaware. (302) 888-4600 or winterthur.org.
Winterthur is a wheelchair-accessible museum, with wheelchairs available to borrow onsite at no cost. Information on other accommodations, including ASL interpretation and assistive listening systems, is available here.